Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry tells more stories about the California Gold Rush, based on letters a 49er, Francis Henry Nicholson, wrote to his fiancée, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Charles. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.
Today I continue with my series “Letters from California Gold Rush ‘49er.’” William Luckow, a client, shared a large collection of letters written by his ancestor Francis Henry Nicholson, who was among the many Americans who got the “gold rush fever” and headed out to California to make his fortune in 1849.
Many of the letters were written to his future wife Elizabeth “Lizzie” Charles. In his letters Francis referenced several miners and their families, many from New York and New England. His letters offer a window into the history of the miners’ social and economic world.
Here is a snippet from one letter written by Francis from Nevada City, California, on 21 May 1858:
…Hank Kinney has bought back into some diggings at Relief Hill – which are reported as being pretty good claims… Mr. Van Dusen is again solvent. Has paid all his debts & reports his family well – Td Lambert was down also – is well and doing well – within the last three weeks there have been killed on Woolsey’s Flat two men – neither of whom I was acquainted with – Ned is at work in his claims at Woolsey’s and doing splendidly here – F. & Merriman are collecting toll on the new road – they failed to make trade with the County. Buck Gnar was buried up once – but fortunately escaped injury. Sam Funk is living at Woolsey’s – has bought into Van Dusen’s claims – They also say that Hank Kinney spends a great deal of time at father-in-law Arnold’s house – something may grow out of it, but I think nothing serious – Well I believe that is all the items I have now – with this exception – the dancing community are rather busy – Madam & Ada Clark are teaching at Cherokee.
Enclosed you will find a copy of invitation issued by Geo Turney for a ball to which I have received some pressing [requests] to attend but I shall not – Mrs. Geo Turney was down here the other day at Madam Clarks – she looks very well…
To begin, an 1850 census lists Francis living at a hotel in Louisville, El Dorado County, California. In the same census is “Hank,” born Henry Lee Kinney (1830-1893), listed living at the same hotel with the profession of a miner.
Henry was the son of Charles Babcock Kinney and Sophia Knox. His ancestors include early New England settlers Captain William Trask, Thomas Putnam, Henry Kenny, Captain William Marston, Capt. James Babcock, William Knox, and Captain James Avery.
Here is another letter from Francis to Lizzie dated a year later, on 29 June 1859, written from Arnold’s Ranch, California.
Francis attended the wedding of Hank Kinney and Emma Clara Arnold, daughter of Henry Benedict Arnold and Sarah Tyron Sizer. Henry Arnold was known for his prosperous farm ranch and the large apples produced there. Emma descends from Massachusetts stock, including Dudley, Hubbard, Boardman, and Mayflower passenger Stephen Hopkins.
My own Dear Lizzie:
Hank Kinney was married this morning at 5 o’clock and started with his bride Emma for San Francisco – and I suppose to Oregon. The ceremony was in my mind a complete farce – a perfect burlesque on the Holy vows due matrimony – A Justice of the Peace from Orleans Flat performed the farce.
I believe Francis’ objections to the marriage were due to the gap in the couple’s ages, as well as Hank’s mounting debts – which may have been a prompter to marry into a prominent family.
I found their wedding announcement in the Daily National Democrat, and the nuptials brought on a side of drama.
This article reported:
One of those very interesting affairs – a marriage – took place yesterday morning at Arnold’s Ranch, on the Back-bone Turnpike, at 6½ o’clock A.M. The names of the parties are Miss Emma Arnold and Mr. Henry Kinney. It is said a warm attachment existed between the parties for over a year, and owing to the kindness of Squire Post, who, for $10 cash, has made perfect their cohesive proclivities, it is to be hoped their thermometer of affection may continue to range at about 100. Mr. Kinney, owing to the crowded condition of this State in all departments of trade, and the risk attending a settlement in it with a beautiful young wife, as soon as the matrimonial job was over with, departed with his bride to the Bay City, intending to embark thence to Washington Territory. But, as soon it became known to his creditors that he had wedded and absconded, warrants were issued by those unkind people.
Francis also mentioned in his 29 June 1859 letter “Sam Arnold & Lady.” Samuel Arnold was Emma’s uncle, and his lady would be his wife, Sarah Westcott Bush, daughter of Leonard Bush and Lydia Sackett.
Henry and Emma had children who left descendants. She married again after Henry died, to George Sneath, and had more children with him.
Emma’s father Henry Arnold rebuilt a hotel in Lake City (aka Arnold’s Ranch), previously owned by the Bell brothers, that was destroyed by a fire in 1859 – and held several prominent balls.
Here is one ball mentioned in the Hydraulic Press in June 1861, noting the “brilliant and satisfactory” time had by many young folks from the Nevada City area.
Next up I will cover subjects from Francis’ letters: Madame Clark, a dance instructor, and her famous balls. Her daughter married a Wilder from New England. And Lafayette Van Dusen, who descends from the New York Knickerbocker family and married a Hinckley who descends from Plymouth’s Gov. Thomas Hinckley.
To be continued…
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Note on the header image: river mining for gold on the North Fork of the American River, California, ca.1853. Credit: George H. Johnson; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Wikimedia Commons.